Photo credit: bioguide.congress.gov
"Cotton Tom" Heflin had a curious pair of choices in what he considered to be his accomplishments while a member of Congress. He was especially proud of his role in the establishment of Mother's Day. He also looked back fondly on the time he shot a black man during a confrontation on a Washington, D.C. streetcar.
James Thomas Heflin was born in Louina, Alabama, in April of 1869. After attending Southern University in Greensboro and Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College, later named for its host city of Auburn, Heflin began studying law. He was admitted to the bar in 1893 and began practicing in Lafayette. His first entry into politics came in 1893, when he served for a year as the community's mayor.
Heflin continued a steady progression from local politics into state level positions. He served as register in chancery from 1894 to 1896, when he resigned to become a member of the state house of representatives; he held a seat there until 1900. One of his first overtly white supremacist acts came in 1901 when he was a member of the state constitutional convention. Heflin helped draft legislation in the document aimed at barring African-Americans from voting.
In 1902, Heflin began serving as Alabama's secretary of state. He resigned in 1904, halfway through his term, to run in a special election called to fill a vacancy caused by the death of Representative Charles W. Thompson. Heflin won both this election and the year's general election and served in the House of Representatives for the next seven Congresses. He earned his nickname through a persistent advocacy for more favorable cotton prices, while also recommending an expansion of rural mail routes and railroad regulation.
The shooting incident had its roots in Heflin's proposal in February of 1908 to bring Jim Crow laws to D.C. streetcars, arguing that segregation of public transportation had proved successful in Alabama. The proposal was voted down by the House, and earned Heflin plenty of criticism. One person, writing a letter to him, suggested that Heflin's morals should encourage him to stand to give up his seat to a black woman on the streetcar. Many other writers threatened him with death. In response, Heflin applied for permission to carry a pistol in public.
A month later, Heflin was riding on a streetcar with Rep. Edwin J. Ellerbe of South Carolina on his way to deliver a temperance lecture. The exact circumstances of the incident are unclear, as contemporary reports give several versions of what happened. They all agree, however, that Heflin was offended by a black passenger who was cursing and drinking from a bottle of whiskey while a woman sat nearby. When Heflin asked the passenger, Louis Lundy, to stop, Lundy shouted insults back at him. A scuffle erupted on the streetcar as it pulled up to a station in front of the St. James Hotel, and Heflin threw Lundy onto the platform.
The reports on what happened next varied widely. One version suggested that Heflin had struck Lundy in the head with his pistol, accounting for the wound there, and then fired warning shots at his feet. Another said Heflin shot Lundy in the neck or a grazing wound above the ear. In any case, Heflin thought Lundy was reaching for a razor and opened fire at the streetcar platform as several bystanders milled about. One round ricocheted and hit Thomas McCreary, a horse trainer, in the leg. It was described as a minor wound, but the New York Times later claimed that complications stemming from the injury put McCreary in the hospital for six weeks and nearly took his life.
Arrested on a charge of assault to kill, Heflin was kept in a police captain's office rather than a cell before making a $5,000 bail. Upon his return to Congress, he was thronged by like-minded representatives who congratulated him; several telegrams also poured in, praising him for his action. Yet some Southern newspapers criticized him for turning what they saw as a relatively minor annoyance into a violent episode, saying it was a foolish kneejerk reaction based on little more than racist sentiment. Heflin defended his action. "Under the circumstances there was nothing more for me to do," he said. "I am glad to say I have not yet reached the point where I will see a Negro, or a white man either, take a drink in the presence of a lady without saying something to him. I did only what any other gentleman placed in similar circumstances would have done."
Heflin even threatened to press a case against Lundy for carrying a weapon on a streetcar. Indeed, Lundy was a repeat offender with 12 arrests on record between 1905 and 1907, with charges ranging from disorderly conduct to grand larceny. Yet Heflin's threat was somewhat hypocritical. Despite his claim that he had been cleared to carry a pistol, the D.C. police wouldn't confirm the permission to the New York Times and the newspaper's search of police records found no such authorization.
Prosecutors ultimately decided to indict Heflin on three counts of assault. However, the indictment was quashed when Lundy failed to show up in the court appearance. Soon after, Lundy sued Heflin and demanded $20,000 in damages. While this suit apparently never amounted to anything, Heflin did agree to pay for McCreary's medical expenses.
Heflin was not quite done with public scuffles. In August of 1909, he and another congressman were nearly hit by a speeding car. Heflin chased down the vehicle and took the plate number. When the driver asked what he was doing, the two exchanged insults and then blows. Unlike the shooting, no charges were filed in this fight.
Heflin was especially proud of his role in establishing the legislation which would lead to the declaration of the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day. The idea had been championed by Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia, and in 1914 Heflin introduced the House resolution on the holiday; it would later be approved by President Woodrow Wilson. Yet Heflin was also a noted opponent of women's suffrage, with women's groups in Alabama vowing to fight his re-election after he said he thought a woman's place was in the home.
Aside from his role in Mother's Day, Heflin's congressional career was marked largely by bombast. His loud speeches and dress, which typically including a frock coat and 10-gallon hat, made him a favorite to spectators in the Capitol. In September of 1914, he claimed that the votes and proposals of 13 to 14 members of the House indicated that they were being influenced by a German slush fund. In October of 1917, an investigating committee determined that the accusation was false.
It was far from the last unfounded accusation Heflin would make. He constantly blustered about conspiracies or made spirited accusations, denouncing everything from another candidate's supposedly soft stance on Communism to the presidential handshake policy. He later developed a central theme of supporting Prohibition and opposing Catholicism. Critics said Heflin's remarks were making an embarrassment of Alabama and Congress; the New York Times noted in 1927 that his anti-Catholic remarks had "become almost a habit" and that a fellow member had denounced his remarks as those of an "ill-mannered fellow."
Yet the electorate continued to like Heflin enough to return him to office again and again. In November of 1920, he was elected to the Senate to fill a vacancy caused by the death of John H. Bankhead. He was re-elected in the regular election of 1924.
Heflin's fall from grace came in 1928. The Democrats chose Governor Al Smith of New York, a Catholic, as their presidential candidate. Accusing Smith and Catholics in general as conspiring to overthrow the United States, Heflin broke ranks and publicly supported Republican presidential candidate Herbert Hoover. "Alabama isn't going for Al Smith. Neither is any other southern state, except possibly Louisiana," Heflin declared in January of the election year. "He is a Tammanyite, wringing wet and a Roman Catholic. I would vote against him for all three reasons."
The remarks against Smith earned Heflin plenty of denunciation. The state's newspapers and Democratic leaders accused him of being little more than a mouthpiece for the Ku Klux Klan. When he made a speech against Smith at an Alabama high school the day before the election, protesters threw eggs at him. In one appearance before a Massachusetts KKK group in 1929, Heflin was pelted with stones and a quart bottle.
The "Yellow Dog Democrats" organized a campaign against Heflin. Although there are other stories related to the origin of the name, it generally referred to Southerners who would support the Democratic Party in any case. The phrase "I'd vote for a yellow dog if he ran on the Democratic ticket" surfaced in response to Heflin's support of Hoover.
Alabama Democrats had their revenge shortly after Smith's unsuccessful run for the White House. Party leaders made an amendment to the qualifications for 1930 candidates, requiring them to swear an oath that they had not openly opposed any Democratic candidates in 1928. Heflin organized the Jeffersonian Democratic Party in an attempt to retain his seat, but his biases continued to undermine him. Prior to the election, he made a number of baseless accusations in a prolonged rant. They included charges that a slush fund overseen by Tammany Hall and the Catholics had been at work in forcing him out, that Catholics dominated the press, that some of the members changing the party rules had been drunk while doing so, that prior presidents had vetoed immigration bills so more Catholics could flood into the country, and that national Democratic Party chairman John J. Raskob was in bed with the Catholics. "He is the chamberlain to the Pope," Heflin proclaimed. "No doubt he is now in the royal chamber discussing plans."
Voters dealt Heflin a resounding defeat at the polls, where he fell by 50,000 votes to Democratic candidate John Bankhead II. Nevertheless, Heflin kept up his charges of fraud and corruption and challenged the result. The Alabama house of representatives, by now weary of Heflin's antics, passed a resolution in January of 1931 criticizing him for "very poor sportsmanship" and skewering his record in general, saying it "made Alabama the laughing stock of the Union by his bigotry, lack of religious tolerance, and the lack of many of the courtesies generally expected between one gentleman and another."
But the Senate still took up the challenge, and in March of 1932 the Senate Election Committee voted along party lines to vacate Bankhead's seat and open it up to appointment. The committee felt there had been a widespread violation of election laws, including an illegal primary. In April, Heflin appeared before the Senate to ask for Bankhead's ouster and said there had been expenditures of over $1 million in the 1930 election. The same month, however, the full Senate voted 64-18 to reject Heflin's appeal.
By this time, Heflin had also earned rebuke for a letter he had submitted to the Congressional Record criticizing New York's legalization of interracial marriage. Critics said the letter would harm Alabama businesses at a particularly inopportune time, since the Great Depression had been burdening the country for several years. Grover Cleveland Hall, writing an editorial for the Montgomery Advertiser, blasted Heflin as "a bully by nature, a mountebank by instinct, a Senator by choice...Thus this preposterous blob excites our pity if not our respect, and we leave him to his conscience in order that he may be entirely alone and meditate over the life of a charlatan whose personal interest and personal vanity are always of paramount concern to him."
The unsuccessful challenge to the 1930 election results ultimately led Heflin to seek reconciliation with the Democrats. In October of 1932, he offered to campaign on behalf of Democratic presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Three years later, he was appointed a special representative of the Federal Housing Administration. He left in 1936 to serve a year as a special assistant to the U.S. Attorney General in Alabama, a position he held in 1937. Heflin again became a special representative of the Federal Housing Administration between 1939 and 1942.
Following his retirement, Heflin died in Lafayette in April of 1951.
Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, Encyclopedia of Alabama, "'Jim Crow' Cars Denied by Congress" in the New York Times on Feb. 23 1908, "Congressman Shot Negro in Street Car" in the New York Times on Mar. 28 1908, "2 Negros Shot By Congressman" in the Newburgh Daily Journal on Mar. 28 1908, "Praise Congressman Who Shot a Negro" in the New York Times on Mar. 29 1908, "Heflin Sued by Negro" in the New York Times on Apr. 5 1908, "Topics of the Times" in the New York Times on Apr. 5 1908, "Heflin, M.C., Fights a Reckless Motorist" in the New York Times on Aug. 5 1909, "Heflin Pays for Shooting" in the New York Times on Apr. 30 1908, "Women to Oppose Heflin" in the New York Times on Feb. 13 1913, "Charges Fail" in the Gettysburg Times on Oct. 6 1917, "Rebuke Senator For Abusing Other Solon" in the Evening News on Feb. 3 1923, "Heflin is Silenced in Church Attack" in the New York Times on Feb. 19 1927, "Heflin Renews His Attack on Church and Gov. Smith" in the Evening Independent on Jan. 24 1928, "Heflin Centre of Egg Shower in Alabama" in the Providence News on Nov. 7 1928, "Heflin is 'Missed'" in the Pittsburgh Press on Mar. 19 1929, "Heflin Assails Press, Church" in the Pittsburgh Press on Apr. 22 1930, "Legislature Flays Heflin" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Jan. 30 1931, "Heflin Wins Ouster Point" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Mar. 5 1932, "Heflin Tells Senate 'Leads' Indicate More Than a Million Spent" in the Evening Independent on Apr. 27 1932, "Senate Refuses To Oust Bankhead, 64 to 18" in the New York Times on Apr. 29 1932, "Heflin Proffers Service to Party" in the Lewiston Morning Tribune on Oct. 16 1932, "J. Thomas Heflin, Former Senator From Alabama, Dies" in the News and Courier on Apr. 23 1951, "The Bum Who Fathered Mother's Day" in the New York Times on May 8 1994, Fighting the Devil in Dixie: How Civil Rights Activists Took On the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama by Wayne Greenhaw, Encyclopedia of the United States Congress by Robert E. Dewhirst and John David Rausch